Jeff Bezos’ private space company Blue Origin launched and landed the fifteenth test flight of its New Shepard rocket booster and capsule on Wednesday.
The mission did not have passengers on board, although the capsule on top of the rocket is designed to carry as many as six people for future flights. Known as NS-15, the mission launched from Blue Origin’s private facility in West Texas and marks a “verification step” for the rocket and capsule before flying people, the company said.
New Shepard is designed to carrying people on a ride past the edge of space, with the capsules on previous test flights reaching an altitude of more than 340,000 feet (or more than 100 kilometers). The capsule spends as much as 10 minutes in zero gravity before returning to Earth, with massive windows to give passengers a view.
The mission on Wednesday reached 348,753 feet altitude, Blue Origin said – or about 106 kilometers, above the internationally recognized boundary of space.
NS-15 is expected to represent the second of two “stable configuration” test flights, CNBC reported in January, after the NS-14 mission featured the debut of a new rocket booster and upgraded capsule. While Blue Origin has only said that the first crewed flights will be “soon,” sources told CNBC in January that the company’s leadership hopes to launch its first crew on the NS-16 mission.
The company confirmed CNBC’s reporting that NS-15 would feature a test of loading and unloading the crew. Blue Origin called this an “astronaut operational exercise,” a key step in preparing for launching passengers.
“The primary operations will entail Blue Origin personnel standing in as astronauts entering into the capsule prior to launch. These astronauts will climb the launch tower, get into their seats, buckle their harnesses, and conduct a communications check from their seat with CAPCOM, the Capsule Communicator. The tower operations team will prepare the capsule cabin for launch and then briefly close the capsule hatch. The astronauts will then exit the capsule prior to launch,” the company said in a blog post.
After the capsule lands, Blue Origin said its personnel will re-enter the capsule to rehearse opening the hatch and exiting the spacecraft.